Out of Season, released in England by Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man a full year ago, has been made available here in the US at last; it is a tiny, self-contained jewel. This is adult music in the best sense of the phrase, emotionally sophisticated and uncompromising both in intent and delivery. Most likely it is too subtle a work to find broad commercial success, but as long as people look towards music for revelations of the heart, it ought find an audience. In this much, then, it will never be out of season.
Despite high-profile work with Portishead, Gibbons remains little more than a shadow in the music biz. Shy and reserved by inclination, she'd probably want it no other way; still, her talent demands greater exposure. Out of Season invites few comparisons with the work of Portishead -- nor with the entire "Bristol sound" for that matter -- beyond the fact that, like the earlier work, it stumbles between genres to a somewhat unclassifiable place, and happily so. There is a folk tinge to some of this, yet it contains a faintly soulful blues too, recalling the deeper, more resonant moments of Dusty Springfield and Van Morrison.
Gibbons obviously takes considerable care (and delight) in the invention of her phrasing, and the listeners' delight is in discovering a voice at once utterly fearless and distinct. When she intones, "You know what they say about romance " at the opening of "Romance", the effect is of a timeless voice from the 1930s echoing across thin radio airwaves. Constantly she toys with speed and pitch, reaching to us from unexpected places.
The album's title is lifted from the penultimate track, "Funny Time of Year", and was done so at the suggestion of Paul Webb, aka Rustin Man. It is a perfect title for a poetic, lyrical work such as this the kind of music one occasionally wonders whether or not will ever be popularly in season again. Webb's arrangements are daringly sparse, but perfectly accommodate the autumnal, reflective quality of Gibbon's voice and words. There is an almost tangible sense of place here, the kind of quiet solemnity found alone within the confines of a thick-walled cottage, wind gusting outside, clouds billowing above a raw, ravaged landscape.
While the album is poetic in language and in its concerns, Gibbons and Webb themselves strike one as utterly unpretentious. Their evident keening is for the music. The artistic process, and all the other nonsense that comes along -- the promotion, the dull repetitive questioning -- is a by-product, an unwelcome diversion. Their recent shows in support of this album were straightforward, without frills or ego, yet often hypnotic. Gibbons chain-smoked throughout and paced the floor uncomfortably between songs. She possessed the air of a woman ordinarily found folded over a table, scrutinizing life through the reflections of a gin glass amidst the hazy blue smoke of tobacco.
Sanctuary Records has been at pains to point out that this is a side-venture from Portishead, and not an abandonment of roots. Another Portishead record is apparently in the works, although frankly, a mere two studio albums over the course of a decade hardly constitutes full-time work either. Dummy, the debut Portishead album, remains one of the most important and compelling records of the last fifteen years, and only an unfortunate failure to develop its ideas further may account for the shameful lack of stature it commands in the popular music canon.
The last two studio tracks on Out of Season most closely hint at that Portishead style (the US release also includes a bonus track, a live cover of The Velvet Underground's "Candy Says"), but even these songs afford little more than a side-long glance in that direction. Rather, this album demands its own time and space, and the patience of multiple plays. It should be heard and slowly absorbed, and this in spite of the Portishead connection, not because of it.